I have read a few books by Leo Bruce, (Case for Three Detectives (1936), Case for Sergeant Beef (1951) and Cold Blood (1952)), but this is the first book I have read in his Carolus Deene series, this being the 16th.
It begins with 5 regular commuters wondering why the 6th person, Felix Parador, who normally joins them in first class, has not arrived. Nerves are further set on edge when an outsider to the group takes his seat, saying he won’t be coming. We soon realise there is good reason for Parador’s absence, when the police find him dead in his car at an isolated car park near Downaway Hill. It is presumed that he has committed suicide, via a drug overdose, yet those closest to him remain unconvinced. An ex-employee who just so happens to be married to Carolus Deene’s housekeeper, gives Deene an opening into the case. Deene is a school teacher who has just gone on holiday and who is itching to get involved in another criminal investigation, so this case seems right up this street. The only downside is that he has to take along a less than angelic teenage pupil with him, whose parents are unable, (read: do not want to), to take care of him over the holidays. Of course once Deene gets involved in examining Parador’s death more and more suspicious circumstances are revealed, such as how some of the commuters benefit from his death, the fact Parador recently changed his will, but this new will has gone missing and that there are some less than savoury rumours about his wife’s reputation.
I really enjoyed the start of the novel, as I think Bruce gets the group dynamic on the train just right, incorporating the social etiquette which has built up within the group, but which also ironically limits how much interaction they have with each other:
‘Perhaps if two of them met in Brenstead or in the presence of their wives there might be some chit-chat exchanged, or something as closely personal as an enquiry after health. But not in the morning. Not in that compartment. The nearest they had ever gone towards intimacy was an exchange of comments on last night’s television.’
Bruce goes on to say that Parador ‘made history’ when he asked to borrow a pencil to fill in the Times crossword. Looking from the outside in, it’s hard to not find such a social group entertaining. This brand of humour is characteristic of the novel as a whole, by and large, as like Delano Amees’ later work, Bruce’s later work moves from overt zany metafictional humour to more understated character based social/cultural comedy, though I think Bruce could have pushed the humour in these areas a little further. Perhaps the former type of humour is too hard to maintain over that many years.
Although this story was written in the 1960s and has various cultural indicators of being of those times, especially in its references to fashion, its sexism and young people, the mystery itself mostly harks back to earlier mystery fiction. Moreover, I would say that Deene himself, feels like he belongs to an earlier era, (though not in a bad way), dampening down his young charge’s amorous remarks and telling him off for using the Americanism ‘OK’.
As I say I enjoyed the opening of the story and the plot moves along nicely in an entertaining fashion, however things begin to get disappointing 70 pages from the end (which is fairly significant considering that the book is only 192 pages long). In order to get some movement on the case, thriller components emerge, in terms of violent action and criminal psychology and unfortunately these aspects fell flat for me, as they just seemed too ridiculous and juxtaposed to the story that preceded them. The solution tries to return back to the atmosphere set earlier in the story but again it felt disappointing, especially considering it is largely theoretical and not based on much hard evidence. This was a big shame for me as I loved the central characters and if they were placed in a stronger mystery I would love to encounter them again. So if you’ve read any good Deene mysteries do let me know.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): (Train) Carriage